Catching a Mermaid

Two boys and a girl are portrayed on rocks at the water's edge. The narrative indicates that they have discovered a wrecked ship's figurehead and, armed with ropes and a boat-hook, attempt to haul it ashore. Two of the children sit on the long boat-hook. The girl restrains the younger boy, while the older boy perches near the edge of the rocks and secures the figurehead with a rope. On their narrow platform the children provide an essential counterpoint to the sweeping seascape behind. The sentiment of the title positions the children as innocents mistaking the reality of the figurehead for a fictional mermaid. In a work designed to appeal to the emotions, even the children's innocent pleasure contains a paradox. The wooden image hints at storms and disasters in an otherwise innocuous scene, and its colour and form are reminiscent of a cadaver.

The narrative may be seen as an intonation of man's fate and the menace of the deep is implied in the precarious position of the children on a ledge of rock. The long hair of the little girl is reminiscent of the strands of seaweed dangling from the figurehead that resembles a corpse, round which the older boy ties a knot while perching with a foot on the carving. The work contrasts the human appeal of young children with the wilder elements of rocks and sea. There is also a contrast between the children, whose appearance suggests they are from the local working community, familiar with the dangers of the shore, and the ladylike dress of the 'drowned' mermaid cast up on it.

Hook was one of the most famous Victorian sea painters. His marine works often featured idealized fisher-folk and were a familiar part of the Victorian art scene. He spent his summers in Devon and Cornwall and painted numerous scenes of fishermen and their wives at work, and pictures of their children at play. Seascapes were judged as imaginative works of art and bought by wealthy Victorian connoisseurs. This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1883 and was admired in the 'Athenaeum' of 5 May 1883; 'the glory of the picture is the sea whose waves dash themselves against the points of rocks'.

Object Details

ID: BHC4162
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Hook, James Clark
Date made: 1883
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Frame: 1306 mm x 1790 mm x 130 mm;Overall: 62.2 kg;Painting: 915 x 1393 mm

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